With Portland Thorns preseason beginning next week, ThornsFC.com will spend the coming days spotlighting the team’s current depth chart. First up: the goalkeepers.
Some teams would have responded with panic. Perhaps the Portland Thorns did. But if there was a moment of worry in the days before last summer’s NWSL Challenge Cup, when a knee injury meant their first-choice goalkeeper could miss a potentially seven-game tournament, it never reached the public’s eye. Adrianna Franch was close to being ruled out for what, at the time, looked like 2020’s only games, but as the ensuing weeks showed, the Thorns’ had multiple solutions.
The first was Bella Bixby, who stepped in for the tournament’s group stage and only conceded three times in four games. When she suffered her own season-ending knee injury mid-tournament, it was Britt Eckerstrom’s turn. She stepped up with one of the best goalkeeping performances in National Women’s Soccer League history during the tournament’s quarterfinals, helping Portland defeat the Challenge Cup’s favorites and reach the semifinals.
Over a 2020 where Portland endured long absences with Franch, Bixby, central defender Becky Sauerbrunn and attacker Sophia Smith, depth proved one of the team’s virtues. But nowhere was that virtue tested more than in goal, where the team may have finished the year with three starting-caliber goalkeepers on the roster.
One of those goalkeepers won’t be back, though; not that the Thorns wouldn’t have loved to see Eckerstrom return. Last week, the two-time NWSL champion announced her retirement from professional soccer, concluding a career that saw her make 26 appearances with the Thorns. As she showed throughout Challenge Cup’s knockout round and into the team’s four Fall Series games, Eckerstrom was capable of being a starter in the NWSL, a level she’d also shown during earlier stretches where she served as Portland’s No. 1.
We’ve already been given a lot to remember from this, the first era of the National Women’s Soccer League. The games and talents that have defined the league, as well as the culture around it, have created something that may prove unmatched in the history of sports. But that history has also included a lot of players who ended up in Eckerstrom’s position: with too much talent for too little opportunity. Part of the point of the NWSL should be to ensure other Britt Eckerstroms that remain in the league, and the hundreds that are destined to come, get the opportunities they’ve earned. We should take pride in how we grow the league, because growth is what those players deserve.
The corps Eckerstrom leaves behind is otherwise unchanged, though 2021 arrives with questions. For both Franch and Bixby, those questions are similar. You had surgery on your knee last summer. It ended your 2020. How far along will you be when the 2021 season properly kicks off?
Thorns head coach Mark Parsons will surely be asked about his goalkeepers in the coming weeks, after Portland’s 2021 preseason kicks off. But regardless of where each is in their recovery at the moment, both Franch and Bixby will be part of the Thorns’ 2021. When the team is at full strength, both will be options.
With Franch, that means Portland will have a U.S. international at their disposal; a player who, at her best, has earned a place in the conversation of the best goalkeepers in the NWSL. During her time in Portland, she’s gone through stretches where she was the most important player in the league’s best defense, and at still only 30 years old, Franch is in the prime of a goalkeeper’s career. When she returns to full health, the advantages Portland have in goal will return, too.
Bixby, 25, is still coming into her best, be as she showed during Challenge Cup, she’s also capable of a plus contributor now. A surprise starter for the tournament’s first game, Bixby went on to keep two cleansheets during the tournament’s four-game preliminary round, and while an ACL injury meant her competition ended after that phase, the proof of concept still came through. After two years’ improvement was confined to training sessions at Providence Park, Bixby revealed a starter’s potential, if not more. At some point, she’ll need more minutes to improve.
What Bixby’s course means for Portland’s competition in goal is another question Parsons will have to address, but if that competition evolves as expected, the Thorns could be in an enviable position. Franch has already established herself as an elite NWSL goalkeeper. Based on what we saw in Utah, Bixby’s on the same course.